Farmer Recalls Tragic Accident

8/17/2013 7:00 AM
By Linda McNatt, Va./N.C. Correspondent

Joe Griffin Adjusts to Life After Farming

Editors Note: The following story contains graphic details of a farm accident

It was a hot, sticky August afternoon two years ago, when J.C. “Joe” Griffin Jr. decided to clear some brush on his Windsor, Va., family farm. Griffin and his constant companion, Pecan, a mixed-breed rescue dog, were alone on the 200-acre farm.

Griffin hitched the brush whacker — a machine that chews up sticks and small trees to clear land — onto the back of one of the farm’s older tractors. Until then, it had been running fine, he said. The brush hog ran off of the tractor’s power.

But something unexplained happened when the tractor suddenly quit running. Griffin said he climbed down from the tractor seat, went around to the front of the machine and “fiddled with it.”

The tractor sprang to life. It was Aug. 4, 2011, and Joe Griffin’s life changed forever.

Before he knew it, he said, the tractor had him pinned to the ground, and the brush hog was making its way up his body.

When the tractor finally cut off again, both of his legs were gone, mangled and eaten by the wretched whacker. He said it was amazing, even to him, that he still had his wits about him.

“I thought I had put the tractor in neutral,” he said. “I will never know how it got back in gear. I was in big trouble.”

His cellphone had been thrown to the ground. It wasn’t far away. He managed to crawl to it and call his wife and the rescue squad.

That quick, cellphones in the small town started to jingle. Joe’s son-in-law, a mail carrier, called Joe’s cellphone.

“Pop, we heard there was an accident on the farm. Are you all right?”

“No, son, I’ve cut my legs off.”

While his dog ran up and down in front of the accident scene, stopping to come back to his master and offer reassuring face licks, Joe talked on the phone.

The emergency dispatcher couldn’t find the farm at Buckhorn Road and Dunston Drive, but “there were angels all around him,” his wife, Carolyn, said. Officials were afraid at first they couldn’t find a place on the Griffin farm to land the air ambulance helicopter from Sentara Norfolk General Hospital in Norfolk, Va. They wanted to move Joe Griffin by ambulance to meet the helicopter at a safer location. That’s when his wife stepped in.

“I told him he was not leaving this farm until Nightingale came to him,” she remembers saying. “They said later that may have saved his life.”

By then, local emergency workers started to arrive. All of them knew Joe and Pecan. They had to throw sticks at the dog and threaten him to get to Joe. Pecan was found later, after things quieted down, hiding in a barn.

Joe had indeed lost both legs. His right leg was broken; his left leg was gone, up to his buttocks. His right femur, pelvis and hip were broken. At the hospital, he got 19 units of blood. Somehow, his Navy-blue work pants had been twisted by the brush hog enough to act as a natural tourniquet — the only reason he didn’t bleed to death. The emergency room doctor called his wounds “lethal.”

“You hear about the soldiers in Afghanistan? Well, he just got hit by an IUD,” said Dr. Leonard Weireter, a surgeon at Sentara Norfolk General, at the time.

Weireter talked with Carolyn and advised her to “prepare herself.”

She recalls looking at the doctor and saying,”God hasn’t brought him this far to take him now.”

He reminded her that her husband was almost 70 years old.

“You don’t know Joe Griffin,” she said. “He’s 70 going on 40.”

Joe Griffin has survived two strokes. He’s had pneumonia three times. He’s been in and out of the hospital.

But something that happened the first time his wife wheeled him outside of the Norfolk hospital confirmed to him that there is a reason why he’s still here.

With few other people around, a blue jay flew out of nowhere and landed on his hand. Carolyn didn’t have a camera handy, but the third time the jay dropped in, she was ready.

“I remember looking to my left, and the little blue jay had landed on my hand,” he said. “He was either scavenging for food, or the Lord sent him.”

There is no other explanation, and the friendly blue jay hasn’t been seen since.

Joe has been fitted with artificial legs and is learning to walk on them.

Pecan is still his protector and constant companion.

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